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Monday, January 25, 2016

The postwar American Academy in Rome: Incubator for Modern Architecture

Writing in the latest issue of American Academy in Rome Magazine, 2015 Fellow Denise R. Constanzo examines how the Academy, located in a city better known for its ancient monuments and baroque churches than sleek, modern buildings, survived the rise of postwar architectural modernism.

 "Rome and the classical legacy promoted by its academies," she writes, "were antithetical to modernism's emphasis on industrial materials, abstract forms, and progressive politics.  Constanzo continues:  "Many of Rome's own modernist developments were ideologically problematic, because they enjoyed considerable Fascist support.  After World War II, when modernism gained widespread official sanction, the Rome Prize appeared irrelevant, perhaps even perilous, to an architect's career."

"How, exactly," asks Costanzo, did the Academy survive?  The answer, she argues, is that the American Academy, unlike its French and British counterparts, left its Fellows free to explore Rome's diversity, "eliminating all work requirements in favor of independent projects with minimal oversight."

Venturi: Sainbury wing of the National Gallery, London (1991).
A meeting of modernism and classicism--i.e., postmodernism.

There's a good deal of truth in that explanation, but it's not the whole story.  It would seem to be relevant to Robert Venturi's 1957 experience as an Academy Fellow.  As the title of his brilliant and influential 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, would suggest, Venturi reveled in Rome's urban and architectural ambiguities, its tensions and paradoxes, its "messy vitality."

Quaroni poster for E42

I would add, nonetheless, that Rome's architecture was not as far out of the mainstream as Constanzo might claim. Eero Saarinen was not in the least reluctant to fashion his entry in a 1948 competition (what would become the St. Louis Arch) along the lines of a similar arch drawn by Ludovico Quaroni for E42, an enormous exposition designed to commemorate the 1922 March on Rome.  At the very least, Saarinen was likely familiar with the imperial meaning of Italian arches, dating to antiquity and running through Fascism, and that knowledge fazed him not at all as he prepared his contest submission.

Just as important, elements of Rome's diverse architectural heritage contained the seeds of two strands of American postwar architecture: postmodernism and brutalism. With its weighty mass and its affection for unforgiving, uniform facades of reinforced concrete, the brutalist movement that
Fascist-era office building, viale Castro Pretorio, Rome.  A precursor of brutalism--and perhaps postmodernism, too.  
began in the late 1960s owed much to the ponderous office buildings of the Fascist-era, though the latter used marble and stone.

Michael Graves, Steigenberger Hotel, Egypt 

Postmodernism, with is pastiche of forms, its penchant for mixing and matching architectural styles and elements, was eclectic Rome itself, full of juxapositions and the "complexities" that Venturi so admired.  It was the sort of place where Michael Graves--also a Rome Prize recipient (1962)--could begin to imagine his Portland Building, the Steigenberger Hotel in El Gouna, Egypt, the Humana Building in Lousiville, or any of a number of his other "postmodern" buildings.


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